As a man who missed out on the myriad horrors of being cool in my teenage years, Until Dawn is a detailed simulator of what it's like to be surrounded by abhorrent assholes desperately trying to get someone to huff on their dick.
They're out in the snow at a creepy old lodge, away from the prying eyes of their conservative parents. "So come on love let's get the babs out, come and have a spin on the creaky flagpole." (Actual in-game dialogue may vary.) The UK has always been fairly accommodating towards kids who want to get drunk, which makes it weird when faced with the classic American trope of characters in their early 20s behaving like stupid horny babies.
Still, the first hour of Until Dawn is mostly just trying to stop people from behaving like absolute dickheads. The girls call each other whores, the boys puff their chests out and unironically call each other "bro," and it feels like a struggle just to stop things from escalating. And that's before anyone has even been killed.
Weirdly, I can't stop looking out for them. Some of these people are just irritating pricks, and yet I still go out of my way to try and protect them from the murderer that's hunting them down. The game mostly plays out as a series of choices—much like in Telltale's The Walking Dead—except with one big difference: These choices completely change the story. It's possible to finish Until Dawn without any of the characters dying. I've already lost quite a few.
But here's the thing: I still don't even really know what this game is. These aren't the classic morality choices that games have trained us to expect. Occasionally you're faced with awful decisions that don't appear to have any kind of positive outcome, but mostly you're presented with a series of choices where the best you can do is stop them acting like pricks.
Hey maybe you should point a gun at this girl as a joke? I dunno lol. That's Until Dawn in a nutshell—and what the fuck is that about? The whole game is like an endless negotiation between a horror movie writer and a squeamish prude—characters endlessly gravitate towards danger, and the best you can do is gently steer them away. They're unknowingly desperate to do all the stupid things that people do in horror movies before they get killed, and the role I've given myself in this scenario appears to be somewhere between God and everybody's dad.
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And then they get killed anyway, the fuckers. What's the bloody point? I honestly don't have a clue, and that's why I'd seriously recommend checking this game out. It's rare to find a game that surprises me these days, but confusion is an unbelievable treat. I'm not even sure what my role is, as the player. I've personally chosen to look after these poor fools, but you could just as easily decide to behave like the director of a cheesy horror movie—shunting them endlessly towards certain doom.
Frustratingly, you don't have ultimate control. You jump between characters as and when the game decides, and people out of your control behave however the game sees fit—the relationships between each of the characters shift as you make choices throughout the game, and sometimes that's the only impact you have.
Making a character insist that you should do the safest thing won't necessarily make that thing happen—it might just mean that everyone else wanders off to do something stupid while rolling their eyes at you for being a boring bastard. But then again, maybe your idea wasn't even good?
Playing through Until Dawn for the first time feels like you're a shit Sherlock Holmes with a job in health and safety, swimming through a mess of red herrings and red flags and trying to work out how best to shape the future. Heading back to play the game a second time with a better understanding of the dangers they face would likely feel like a different experience—if you've the patience to plod along through the same creepy woods multiple times, the replay value here seems decent.
But the best thing about the game by far is a character that I haven't mentioned, and one I won't spoil. This unexpected element elevates Until Dawn, ensuring that isn't just derivative fluff. It expertly borrows from crap horror movies, but crucially leaves you wondering why.
It's a game that quietly plays with one of the best ideas in 2011's Catherine, a bizarre pants-puzzler about infidelity and sheep that didn't explicitly break the fourth wall but did leave you asking yourself tough questions. Catherine used breaks between the game's chapters to ask players blunt questions about their personal views on relationships and monogamy. None of this information was used to change the game, but it somehow made the whole experience more intimate, more uncomfortable. Until Dawn doesn't do the same thing, but at times it pulls at very similar strings, leaving you feeling more involved than you ought to.
Despite the fact that I think the group I'm controlling are mostly a bunch of tossers, after a few hours it feels like there's parity between us. Just as they find themselves cut off on a frozen mountain, I increasingly feel like I've also been trapped—ensnared by a game that wants to determine how much of a "good person" I actually am.
Mostly it's just fascinating and exciting to see something that offers players a new type of choice. Just as GOOD vs. EVIL slipped out of fashion, the same thing seems true for gritty grey moral decisions. Moral choices always pivot personal needs against the greater good, but in games like Until Dawn you're implicitly expected to look after the needs of a wider group of people—it's a fresh dynamic, and hopefully the start of a trend towards games less structurally based on the ideals of an individualist culture.
Unexpectedly interesting design doesn't always make for great games, though—and the real magic here is how effectively I've come to feel directly responsible for the livelihood of a group of absolute assbags. Having given up on Far Cry 3 entirely after it turned out that main character was a chode, Until Dawn has instilled me with a sense of commitment that comes with gritted teeth. Whether or not I'll walk away happier having saved some of these awful bastards remains to be seen, but still, what an experience.
Until Dawn is out now, exclusively on PlayStation 4
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